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Bullying and a culture of incivility

Does incivility lead to bullying?

The workplace is increasingly characterized by incidents of incivility and bullying, and this may be part of a general societal trend, exacerbated by tough economic times.

A startling 37% of American workers--roughly 54 million people--have been bullied at work according to a 2007 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The consequences of such bullying have spread to families, and other institutions and cost organizations reduced creativity, low morale and increased turnover. According to the Institute, 40% of the targets of bulling never told their employers, and of those that did, 62% reported that they were ignored.

According to a 2007 survey by Zogby International, almost 50% of the U.S. workers report they have experience or witnessed some kind of bullying--verbal abuse, insults, threats, screaming, sarcasm or ostracism. One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200 billion per year.

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And bullying is not restricted to male bosses. Cheryl Dolan and Faith Oliver, writing in the Harvard Business Review, report that because women now comprise 50% of the workforce, woman-on-woman bullying is being reported.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and University of Southern California shows that bosses who are in over their heads are more likely to bully subordinates. That's because feelings of inadequacy trigger them to lash out at others. The researchers found a direct link among supervisors and upper management between self-perceived incompetence and aggression. The findings were gleaned from four separate studies, published in the journal Psychological Science.

Is there a relationship between bosses' bullying behavior and narcissism? The incidents of narcissistic bosses such as Bernard Madoff or Ken Lay seem to be on the increase. According to Jim Moral of Florida State Professor of Management, 31% of employees surveyed reported that their boss was prone to exaggerate his or her accomplishments and downplay the contributions of others. The study concluded that the narcissistic bosses created toxic environments resulting in declining productivity.

While many European governments and the governments in Canada, Australia and New Zealand have enacted legislation dealing with workplace bullying, it is yet to be addressed in a comprehensive manner in the U.S., although a number of state legislatures have proposed legislation. An impediment to their passage is that most U.S. states operate under the 19th century doctrine of at-will employment, which often protects management abuses.

The recent economic downturn, with layoffs and financial pressures on managers to perform may have exacerbated the bullying problem. Research conducted by Wayne Hochwarter and Samantha Englehardt at Florida State University concluded that "employer-employee relations are at one of the lowest points in history," with a significant decline in basic civility.

Is bullying a reflection of a general decline in civility? In poll after poll, Americans have voiced concern over the erosion of civility. According to a poll by Weber Shandwick, 65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem in the country and feel the negative tenor has worsened during the financial crisis and recession.

Pier M. Forni, author of The Civility Solution: What To Do When People Are Rude and director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University says, "In today's American, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by coworkers than their jobs; on the roads, where road rage mains and kills; in politics, where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where man check their inhibitions at the digital door."

Gary Namie, a psychologist and co-founder of The Workplace Bullying Institute contends, "how in the world can we stop bullying in schools, in the workplace, in politics, when it is so close to our national character right now?"

Forni says the onslaught of rude, bullying and uncivil behavior--intensified by the 24/7 reach of the Internet and social media--adds to the stress people already feel and can translate into tragic consequences: "It becomes the kick-the-dog syndrome. You make the innocent pay for how badly you feel in order to find some kind of relief." Incivility and bullying behavior is also a precursor to physical violence, says Forni. According to the Department of Labor, there are 1.8 million acts of physical violence in the American workplace every year. According to Time magazine columnist Barton Gellman, threats against President Obama'slife brought him Secret Service protection at the earliest on record for any presidential candidate, and the number of extremist groups in the U.S. increased 244% in 2009.

According to a 2008 study published in the Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, allegiance to many old public virtues such as the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Convention and the rule of domestic and international law is now commonly mocked or dismissed as quaint by significant people in power and persuasion.

Some also suggest that there is a "blame the victim" mentality developing in the nation that somehow contends that the victims of crime, domestic violence, poverty, workplace conflict, and foreign civilian populations "had it coming," rationalized by the artificial justification of "toughness" or "responsibility."

The problem of workplace bullying will not go away anytime soon and may never be fully remedied until enough people call for a return to a culture of civility.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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